The story of Iwacu Art Center

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The artists pose in front of some of their works.

The story of Iwacu Art Center and the young brains behind it is an inspiring one.

Started in March 2016, the Iwacu Art Center in Muhima, a City of Kigali suburb is an art collective that brings together eleven young talented visual artists.

All are former students of the Nyundo School of Music and Art in Rubavu, Northern Province. It is actually at Nyundo that the dream to merge their artistic talents under one roof was birthed.

What’s more, all eleven artists are barely past their teens, with the oldest, Iradukunda Patient just 22 years of age.

The other ten are aged between 19 and 21.

“Iwacu Art Center is a group of eleven young talented artists from Nyundo Art School. We decided to think about what we would be doing after Art School and we realized that working individually would not guarantee each of us success so we decided to operate as an arts collective living and working together,” explained Iradukunda B. Gilbert, the group’s front man when I checked on the studio on Friday morning.

For a facility that opened in March 2016, on a bare minimum of resources, the studio is much less conspicuous than the typical Kigali contemporary art houses, and not even a signpost has been erected yet to guide visitors in.

Once inside the gate, a large residential house and sprawling gardens are the first sights that greet you.

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At the just concluded Made in Rwanda Expo.

The building is large enough to not only house the exhibition and working spaces, but is also where all eleven artists reside.

A colony of bees buzzing in an out of their hive, embedded in an opening on the stone concrete perimeter wall will unsettle the first time visitor but Iradukunda is quick to assure me that they mean no harm.

Stepping inside the main exhibition space, one is ushered into a colorful world of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, illustrations and installations, literally “everything that is associated with art”, as Iradukunda puts it.

Nyundo Art School is where it all begun, in June 2014. It was there that the boys started a group called Umurunga Art, holding several exhibitions, including one in the DRC.

Upon graduation, the boys decided to take the dream to the next level, and in March 2016, Iwacu Art Center was born.

“Here we work as a team. No one has their own personal works here. When one person brings an idea of what we can do, we sit as a group and discuss about it –what can be added and what can be done to improve on the idea and complete it before it is implemented,” Iradukunda further explained.

“If one person makes a painting, others come in to put in their touch and eventually you get that rare unexpected and brilliant touch. It means that no one works alone.”

To get started, each member raised some money from their small individual savings and these were then pooled together to secure a home. A few friends and well-wishers from abroad also extended their financial help, thereby enabling the boys to stock up on materials like paints and work tools.

Out of the eleven members, I met and managed to talk to the six that were on sight when I visited. All of them extolled the virtues of working as a collective;

“Working in a group is more profitable than working alone because you get a lot of experience and you support each other. Because here in Rwanda and in Africa it’s hard to grow alone because we’re still low both financially and in terms of skills,” reckoned 19 year-old Quarto Quinto. To him, art is the best way to express his human feelings.

“As an artist I’m mostly interested in human expressions and emotions and what I deal with is the actual situation prevailing today. We normally sing and type and write about peace, love, dignity and everything else, but we don’t express it from within ourselves. So what I do is to express these ideas from my inner most self and hope that someone gets attached to it.

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A mixed media painting.

I love it because it’s a job you do from your inner self, not from somebody else. Another thing is that I’m self-employed –if I get inspired to work I go and work and if I have no inspiration I keep away from work and this is better than anything.”

He decries the cocoon mentality that is common on the local visual arts scene.

“I’m happy that all these art studios are there and they are working. The only thing I’m not happy about is the lack of collaboration and teamwork. Most artists are doing their own things and they can’t share with the next artist which is really bad and this is one of the things we hope to change as Iwacu Art Center.”

For 20 year old Ishimwe Samuel Daddy, the journey started when he was only nine years old.

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A portrait at the Iwacu Art Center.

“There was this friend of my mother whose husband was an artist. Because I went to his place many times he inspired me to take up art because I had the talent. From childhood I was always good at drawing so I wanted to develop that talent.”

After that experience he was inspired to join art school at Nyundo where he would then meet all his present-day colleagues.

Ishimwe argues that for local visual artists to thrive, an attitude shift must be nurtured among Rwandans as potential clients;

“Here in Rwanda and generally in Africa we don’t have a culture of catering to our secondary needs. We are preoccupied with the primary needs like clothes and food and shelter. That’s why most people complain that art is too expensive so I think we have a task to sensitize our people more about it.”

He adds that patience is paramount for practitioners;

“Art is patience, because if you’re not patient you can’t do it.”

But the biggest challenge to date is the lack of visibility required to break even in an industry that is dominated by a few well-established and publicized contemporary art houses.

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The studio is made up of former students of Nyundo School of Art.

“Our first challenge is that of getting known. That is our greatest challenge I would say. We also lack some of the materials that we need for our work, for instance some paints that have to be imported into the country. The other challenge is the lack of awareness among Rwandans about art. You tell someone a piece is Rwf200,000, and they say oh! That is too high! I thought it was Rwf 5,000.

So basically they don’t value the art, the pain and the energy that the artist puts into it. Maybe the situation will change gradually but at the moment it’s that way,” laments Iradukunda.

This leaves them social media as the most reliable option to get known.

“In today’s world social media is driving everything and that is our base for gaining visibility. Each of us has their own social media account and we also run a joint account as a studio. So more than any other medium we are on social media. When we complete a piece we post pictures of it and share with everyone we know.”

It’s this quest for visibility that saw the group take part in the just-concluded Made-in-Rwanda Expo that was staged at the Gikondo Expo Grounds.

Although art and crafts was some of the better-represented sectors, Iwacu Art Studio easily stood out for their live painting and illustration that easily drew exhibition-goers in their droves.

“Portraits in seven minutes”, read a notice pinned to their stall. When I visited, three of the artists were drawing portraits of different clients on art paper using pencil. Each portrait went for Rw f 5,000, and the money they made from these portraits alone made up for the relatively low sales on art pieces.

Still, Iradukunda insists that making a quick buck was not the best part of taking part in the exhibition:

“We didn’t sell a lot, but we got a lot of connections from there. People gave us orders to develop for them different pieces and we also managed to make connection with some experienced art curators. Some people who want to learn art also approached us with requests because we also teach people art over here.”

The boys plan on holding our own exhibition early 2017 to officially launch their art studio.